December 2016 Archives

Holiday Time at the Houghton

Harvard University’s Houghton Library usually buzzes with scholars engaged in research, but on the day before Christmas Eve the space exuded a more relaxed atmosphere. A forthcoming story and its swiftly approaching deadline occasioned my visit, and it turned out that the half-day before the library closed for a weeklong winter break yielded more time with librarians who might otherwise be engaged in bibliocentric endeavors.

As it was, librarian Susan Halpert, a three-decade veteran of the Houghton, graciously explained the finer points of wrangling Harvard’s vast books and manuscripts database, then whisked us through the Emily Dickinson Room, the John Keats Room, and the recently completed Hyde suite, which houses what is perhaps the finest collection of Samuel Johnson material outside the U.K. Until recently, the Hyde suite was reserved for non-academic purposes, but now roughly 250 different courses utilize the resources here throughout the semester. 

In an effort to welcome more students to the library, the Houghton launched a summer fellowship program in 2015 specifically aimed at undergraduate students. Fellowship participants receive a stipend of $2,850 and participate in an exploratory, ten-week research opportunity that encourages academic inquiry while also alleviating some of the intimidation inherent in facing the sheer breadth and scope of Harvard’s holdings.The results have been impressive; one of last year’s fellows, current senior Jess Clay, used the Houghton’s collection of drawings and papers by John James Audubon to explore the naturalist’s role in American Romanticism, and also compared Audubon’s drawings to poems by Emily Dickinson and fables by Jean de la Fontaine. Clay’s efforts resulted in an exhibition entitled, Sublime and Manifest: The American Romanticism of John James Audubon, on display in the Keats Room at the Houghton through February 2017.



                                                                                                                                                 The tour of the Houghton’s inner sanctum concluded at noon, and it was time for the library to shutter its doors. By 12:01, not a creature was stirring.


Flyer for undergraduate presentation at Harvard. Image Credit: Barbara Richter



207569_0.jpgThe stock of longtime antiquarian bookseller Edwin V. Glaser is being offered at PBA Galleries in a January 12 sale. Glaser specialized in rare medicine, science, and technology books. Online bidding has opened.

Glaser began selling books in New York City in the 1960s, before relocating to Sausalito, and then Napa, California, in turn. He served as president of the ABAA (1986-1988) and as an original faculty member of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminars (1979-2010). Glaser decided to sell his stock at PBA Galleries as he approached his late 80s and withdrew from “active participation” in the antiquarian book trade.  

In a statement, he commented, “I have met and had the opportunity to know many remarkable people: my fellow dealers, my customers, librarians, academics, and just plain (actually not so plain) book-lovers and assorted eccentrics. I acquired and had the opportunity to handle and sell some of the great written monuments of the world’s history and culture. I was my own boss and came and went as I pleased. I even managed to support my family and occasionally have a few dollars left over (although there was always another book or collection to buy).

Auction highlights include a rare sixteenth-century Paracelsus text (pictured) and a letter from Italian mathematician and astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi.

Image Courtesy of PBA Galleries


Richard_Adams_WatershipDown.jpgEnglish author Richard Adams has died at the age of 96. He was best known for Watership Down, a novel about a band of rabbits seeking a new warren that was originally published by Rex Collins in London in 1972, and then by Macmillan in New York. It was a runaway bestseller in both countries, launching the writing career of a civil servant who was already in his fifties. Watership Down also won the prestigious Carnegie Medal.

The news of his passing called to mind a passage from editor Michael Korda’s memoir, Another Life. Korda wrote of Adams, “He was at once a serious adult, carrying a heavy load of religious and moral baggage, and a wondering child, able to imagine a whole rich world in a country hedgerow full of rabbits.”

Korda acquired Adams’ second book, Shardik (1974), about a bear, for Simon & Schuster. Although he felt the novel lacked the magic of Watership, it was his pitch to the publisher’s sales force that really sunk the book when one of the reps offered this opinion to a conference room of colleagues: “Comme ci, comme ça.” It was the kiss of death--or perhaps just a classic case of ‘Second Book Syndrome.’  

Adams did go on to write many more books. And his legacy will not go gently: A remake of the (notoriously violent) 1978 Watership Down film is in production via Netflix and the BBC and is slated to premiere in 2017.

Image: First edition (UK) of Watership Down via Wikipedia

catherinedickensportrait.jpgThe Charles Dickens Museum in London reported that it discovered an original portrait of Catherine Dickens, wife of Charles Dickens. In a curious twist, the painting was discovered by X-ray beneath the portrait many believed to be the original. As it turns out, the original painting was extensively overpainted, perhaps after a botched attempt to clean it.

The Museum was gifted the portrait in 1996 and has it treasured it for 20 years as one of only two paintings of Catherine in the museum’s collection. In May of 2016, however, some gaps in the painting’s provenance were discovered, raising concerns about its authenticity. During cataloging of the museum’s art holdings, concerns were raised about the way the paint was handled in some places, which seemed amateur. The original painter, Daniel Maclise, was unlikely to have painted in such a manner.

Further investigation revealed that about 70% of the painting was not original and had been overpainted. The painting was scanned with infrared and a single X-ray in September, where the original Maclise portrait beneath was discovered.

“This has been an interesting process to say the least and one that has seen us swinging from dismay to elation,” said Cindy Sughrue, director of the Charles Dickens Museum, in a statement. “It is also a reminder of the fascination involved with being responsible for such extensive collections and the importance of ongoing research into those collections. Our next move will be to raise the necessary funds to enable a complete renovation of the painting, to reveal the original Maclise work of Catherine for display in her home.”

 Image from Charles Dickens Museum

Book News for the Week of December 19-23

In case you’ve been too busy getting last-minute holiday errands done, here’s what you missed in the world of books this week:                                                                                                                                                        

Publishers Weekly says that book sales are lackluster this holiday season.                                                                                                                                                          

The Daily News reports that Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum closed this week after roughly two and a half years in existence. (Check out our story on the space in the Spring 2014 print issue.)



image source: Wikimedia Commons                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Hyperallergic’s Claire Voon chronicles the preservation and recent restoration of medieval wall murals at Stratford-Upon-Avon thanks in part to William Shakespeare’s father.                       

Clare Ansberry at the Wall Street Journal explores the origins of the holiday carol “Winter Wonderland.”


Happy holidays! 

st nick.JPG

Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. public domain

L15317_500_5.jpgWren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge has received an “extraordinary” bequest from Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe. The duchess, who died in 2014 at age 99, left over 7,500 books to the library including first editions of Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Tennyson. The bequest is one of the largest received in the library’s history.

Trinity’s librarian, Dr. Nicolas Bell, said in a statement it was “an extraordinary library - one of the most important private collections in Britain, which offers untold discoveries.”

Those untold discoveries include previously unknown manuscripts of Napoleon Bonaparte, George Washington, Florence Nightingale, and Charles Dickens.

The book collection was primarily formed by Mary’s father, Robert Crewe-Milnes, and her grandfather, Richard Monckton Milnes, a Liberal Victorian politician.

Dr. Bell continued: “Richard Monckton Milnes was a fastidious collector of unusual books. As well as major works of English and French literature, his library included transcripts of notorious trials for murder, forgery and witchcraft, rare political pamphlets on the French Revolution and the American Civil War, and several shelves of unpublished literary manuscripts.”

Some highlights from the collection are already on display at Wren Library during regular opening hours.

Image via Trinity College.

I think it’s fair to say that all of us behind the scenes at Fine Books are book lovers and compulsive readers. So I reached out to our staffers and asked them to recommend their favorite book this year. The results were wonderfully heterogeneous: fiction, non-fiction, topical, bookish, historical, riveting. So if you’re looking for a good read over the holiday break, check out our “Best of 2016.”

9781524721725.jpgColumnist Nicholas Basbanes: Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28), a memoir by one of the great literary editors of our time.

Publisher Webb Howell: Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE by Phil Knight (Scribner, $29). Webb said, “This uniquely American story includes the drama of a Greek tragedy but with a happy ending. It says much about where we’ve been the past thirty or so years and what we’ve come to value. NIKE is more than a shoe company; it manages the sports figures who entertain us, who give countless people the extra nudge to ‘just do it.’”

Columnist Jeremy Dibbell: Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines (Mulholland Books, $26), a novel set in an alternate America where the Civil War never happened. Jeremy wrote on his blog, “Winters’ tale is chock full of slightly-twisted historical threads--like any good counterfactual, it explores what might easily have been had things gone just a bit differently. It’s uncomfortable, chilling, heartbreaking ... and it deserves a wide audience.”

Associate Publisher Kimberly Draper: The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House, $27), a novel about a teenage girl that ends up joining a Manson Family-style cult.

Writer Barbara Basbanes Richter: Chanson douce (Gallimard, €18), a psychological thriller based on true events that opens with the murder of two children at the hands of their beloved ‘nounou’ (nanny), written by Franco-Moroccan ex-journalist Leïla Slimani. Barbara said, “I inhaled it in two nights--I could do nothing else but finish the book.” The book won the 2016 Prix Goncourt, and it is reported that Faber acquired the English translation rights.

Madness.jpgColumnist Jeffrey Murray: Revolution (W. W. Norton, $75) by map collector Richard H. Brown and dealer Paul Cohen (of Cohen & Taliaferro). Said Murray, “I found it an aesthetically wonderful presentation of the cartographic heritage behind the American Revolutionary War.”

As for me: Mike Jay’s This Way Madness Lies (Thames & Hudson, $45), a fascinating and unsparing illustrated history of mental illness, from eighteenth-century madhouses to nineteenth-century lunatic asylums to twentieth-century mental hospitals. The book complements the still-current Wellcome Collection exhibition, Bedlam: the asylum and beyond.

Images courtesy of FS&G (top); Thames & Hudson (bottom).

134193_couverture_Hres_0.jpgFrench publisher Le Seuil has threatened legal action against the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam after the Museum questioned the authenticity of a series of previously unpublished Van Gogh sketches. The sketches were recently published by Le Seuil in the book “Vincent Van Gogh, the fog of Arles: the rediscovered sketchbook.”

The book purports to contain a series of previously unknown sketches conducted by Van Gogh during his time in Arles, discovered in the accounts book of a hotel Van Gogh stayed at in 1888. The text was written by art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, the main expert behind the find, who specializes in Van Gogh, and teaches at the University of Toronto.

After the book was published last month, the staff of the Van Gogh Museum rejected the sketches as mere copies of Van Gogh’s style, referring to them as “clumsy” and “monotonous.”

In response, La Seuil, as well as the owner of the sketches, are threatening legal action. In a press statement, La Seuil said they intend “to obtain compensation for the damage they have suffered as a result of an insidious and unfounded campaign” on the part of the Van Gogh Museum. 

For its part, the Van Gogh Museum has said it is not interested in engaging in a public debate about the authenticity of the sketches and instead are calling on the publisher and author to provide a clear response to all of the issues its experts raised about the work.

 Image via the publisher

If you’re like me, you have a go-to font when you open your word processor. You scroll through the options, but unless you’re designing something special like an invitation or a flyer, you click on your old standard, selected for readability and aesthetic gratification. (For me, the choice is Cambria.) Of course there are dozens of alternatives, perhaps even hundreds if you’ve purchased extras, most unused and unappreciated. Until now.   

Type Is.jpgType is Beautiful: The Story of Fifty Remarkable Fonts, recently published by the Bodleian Library and distributed in the U.S. by the University of Chicago Press, offers an excellent introduction to type design. Author Simon Loxley lists fifty fonts not as a “best of” but to showcase those with intriguing histories, cultural significance, or uncommon beauty, and he employs a historical approach, beginning with Gutenberg’s Bible Type, c. 1454, and ending with Zulia, a script face developed in 2013 by Jose Luis Joluvian. The usual suspects, like Bodoni, Helvetica, and Doves Type are here, but so are Comic Sans, London Underground, and Data 70. Each short chapter is usefully illustrated with a clear example of the typeface.


Some fun facts learned:


  • The first commercially available sans-serif typeface was called Two Lines English Egyptian, which appeared in the Caslon foundry’s 1816 type specimen;
  • The typeface most commonly associated with the ‘Wild West’--e.g. Wanted! posters--was originally called French Antique, developed in the foundry of Englishman Robert Besley c. 1854;
  • A novelty typeface called Bloody Hell was created in Britain in the mid-1970s. Its letters “appear to be melting, or dripping with blood.”

Loxley’s take on type through the centuries is exceptionally engaging, and one that might even entice readers to try a new font or two.

Image Courtesy of the University of Chicago Press.


Coconut cake at the Emily Dickinson Museum. Photo Credit: Nicholas A. Basbanes 


On Saturday December 10 the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, celebrated what would have been its namesake’s 186th birthday with cake, guided tours, and of course, poetry readings. Last year the museum welcomed visitors to partake in crowdsourced poetry creation and to tour the recently completed renovation of Dickinson’s bedroom.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Roughly 260 visitors braved bitter temperatures to attend this year’s bash, which coincided with the restoration of the property’s conservatory. Built by the Dickinson patriarch Edward in 1855, the tiny, south-facing, six-foot by 17-foot glass-enclosed greenhouse served as a year-round link to the natural world so beloved by Emily, where she tended to nearly two dozen native and exotic plants like orchids, ferns, carnations, and gardenias.                       

Dickinson’s interest in plants was far from casual; consider her Herbarium, a collection of over 400 plants she collected, pressed, and identified by their Latin names while a precocious fourteen-year old student at Amherst Academy. A facsimile of the impressive volume is at the museum, while Harvard’s Houghton Library houses the original. (The entire book has been digitized and is accessible online.) 

The conservatory was dismantled in 1916, but many of the original building materials remained on the property, undisturbed, for one hundred years. Now, the museum plans to use those existing pieces to rebuild the greenhouse as accurately as possible, as well as replant the various flowers that both inspired the poet and, as she grew more reclusive, served as her representatives to the outside world.

“The restoration of the conservatory is still a work in progress,” said Brooke Steinhauser, the museum’s program director. “We’ve got another month before completion--but there’s a roof and a floor, and already you get a feel for the size of the space and how important this room was to this poet who was a gardener at heart.”

Throughout the afternoon, volunteers invited children and adults to fill miniature pots with marigold or foxglove seeds from the garden. At 2:30 p.m. sharp a crowd assembled on the main floor around a table supporting two massive coconut cakes prepared according to a recipe sent to the poet by a woman known as Mrs. Carmichael. (Find the recipe here and in Emily Dickinson: Profile of the Poet as a Cook.) Taste-testers agreed that the confection was appropriately sweet and dense--a pleasing remedy to wintery doldrums and a lovely tribute to a woman who distilled “amazing sense From Ordinary Meanings.”



The poet’s bedroom reproduced to appear as it did when Dickinson inhabited it. Photo: Nicholas A. Basbanes


The Emily Dickinson Museum closes later this month for the rest of the winter and will reopen in March. 

Our Bright Young Collectors series continues today with Wilder Wohns, who collects exploration and mountaineering in Asia:


Where are you from / where do you live?

I grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and then lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts for four years during my undergraduate program at Harvard. Following graduation last spring, I now live and study in the “other” Cambridge (in the UK). I will be moving again to Oxford next year, where I will study as a Rhodes Scholar.

What do you study at University?

At Harvard, I majored in Human Evolutionary Biology with a minor in Computer Science. At the University of Cambridge, I am studying genetics as an MPhil student in Biological Anthropology. My dissertation focuses on the use of ancient DNA to study the people of medieval Cambridge, with special emphasis on better understanding the Black Death.

Please introduce us to your book collection. 

I’ve always been fascinated by remote places and particularly by the vast landscapes of Asia. My collection is mostly comprised of works on exploration and mountaineering in Asia, specifically in Siberia, Central Asia, the Himalayas, and Japan. I also have a collection of maps of these areas. Most of the books are from the 19th or early 20th centuries.

How many books are in your collection?

There are approximately 50 books and 10 maps in my collection.

What was the first book you bought for your collection?

The first book in my collection is a work called War Between Russia and Japan by Murat Halstead. This book is an account of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 by an American war correspondent. The work draws together many of the themes that interest me: interaction and conflict between cultures, the setting of Siberia, the Russian Far East, and Manchuria, and Japan’s evolving relationship with Asia and the West. The war was significant for many reasons, but particularly because it was the first time an Asian nation had defeated a major European empire. Halstead’s prejudices against the Japanese are evident in the text, so it is fascinating to examine how he responded to Japan’s victory.

How about the most recent book?

I most recently acquired an early edition of Through Siberia: The Land of the Future by Fridtjof Nansen. Nansen is a personal hero of mine: he was successful as an explorer, a humanitarian, and a scientist - he was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his humanitarian efforts. In this work, he recounts his attempts to find a trade route from the Arctic Ocean to the interior of Siberia. He embarked on a journey by sea and land across the vast expanses of Russia, recounting his experiences, the land he traversed, and the peoples he met, in fascinating detail.

And your favorite book in your collection?

My favorite book in my collection is Blank on the Map by Eric Shipton. Alongside Bill Tilman, Shipton pioneered the “fast and light” approach to mountain travel in a time when mountaineering expeditions were run in the fashion of military campaigns. Shipton’s compact team traveled into extremely remote and difficult terrain in the Karakoram Mountains and mapped huge areas that were previously “Blank on the Map.” The work is a classic of the mountain travel genre and Shipton’s accounts are eminently readable. I love hiking and climbing in a fast and light fashion, so Shipton’s passion resonates with me.

Best bargain you’ve found?

The best bargains I’ve found were at a flea market in Paris. I found Russian first editions concerning exploration in Siberia and Central Asia before the Bolshevik Revolution. Each book was only a few Euros!

How about The One that Got Away?

I was enthralled by a 100-year-old Japanese atlas in a secondhand book store in Kanazawa, Japan. I decided to think it over for a day, but when I returned it had already been sold.

What would be the Holy Grail for your collection?

There are many books I would love to have in my collection, but I have long been intrigued by the story of Ekai Kawaguchi, the first Japanese person to enter Tibet. Kawaguchi was a Buddhist monk who wanted to study Tibetan Buddhism in a time when Tibet was closed off to foreigners. I have been eagerly examining first editions of his book Three Years in Tibet. This book excites me because the story of exploration in Asia (and my collection) is dominated by Europeans, so I would greatly appreciate the perspective of a Japanese explorer.

Who is your favorite bookseller / bookstore?

My favorite bookstore is Henry Sotheran’s in London. The store has deeply knowledgeable staff who are always eager to help those who share a passion for antiquarian books and the incredible stories they contain.

What would you collect if you didn’t collect books?

I would collect Japanese woodblock prints. They are beautiful - strikingly rich in color and detail. Whether they depict sublime scenes from another age or historically significant battles and individuals, Japanese woodblock prints are endlessly fascinating.

Image Courtesy of Wilder Wohns.

One of only seven copies of J. K. Rowling’s handwritten and illustrated manuscripts of The Tales of Beedle the Bard sold at Sotheby’s yesterday for £368,750 ($467,317) to an anonymous phone bidder. This copy had been personally inscribed for British publisher Barry Cunningham, who made publishing history by accepting the first Harry Potter for publication twenty years ago. Rowling wrote and illustrated six manuscripts in celebration of completing her series in 2007 to present as gifts to those intimiately involved in its creation; a seventh copy was made for an auction to benefit the children’s charity, Lumos.

Screen Shot 2016-12-14 at 12.02.11 PM.pngEach of the seven copies is “uniquely embellished,” and “inspired by an ancient Italian prayer book,” according to the Sotheby’s catalogue. This one, bound in brown morocco, is adorned with seven rhodochrosite stones and a silver skull mounted at center.

Speaking about the book prior to yesterday’s sale, Dr. Philip W. Errington, Director of Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department said, “The personal resonance of this book makes this both an exceptional and highly desirable object to come to auction. It is particularly special as it is only one of six made for those closest to the author throughout the journey of creating the Harry Potter series, gifted to the man who recognised the brilliance of J. K. Rowling’s writing and her potential impact on children’s literature.”

An inscribed first edition of Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) made £57,500 ($72,870) at the same sale.

Image via Sotheby’s

Bidding is currently open for the Tom Gregory collection of signed Hollywood photographs at RR Auction. The collection is considered the finest ever assembled. Online bidding continues through Thursday, December 15.

Gregory, a film producer and news commentator, began collecting Hollywood glamour photographs when he was only four years old, after stumbling across a box of photographs in his grandmother’s house. As he grew older, and his monetary means increased, Gregory followed the oft-repeated collector’s advice of “buy the best copy you can afford,” gradually assembling a world-class collection of signed Hollywood photographs of stars in classic roles.

Highlights, all signed, include a Greta Garbo photo inscribed to Eva von Berne, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein, a variety of silent film stars and directors, Fatty Arbuckle, and an oversized portrait of James Dean from East of Eden.

Watch Tom discuss his collection in this YouTube video:

Festive news from Oxford today: a long-lost song by English composer George Butterworth has been found in the Bodleian Libraries. The three-page score sets to music a poem by Robert Bridges, beginning with the words, “Crown winter with green,” and speaking of “This good Yuletide.”

To celebrate this discovery, the library has made a recording of the song, sung by John Lee with Guy Newbury on piano. Listen here:

Crown winter with green by George Butterworth. Sung by John Lee with Guy Newbury (piano). Recording technician: Dan Hulme.

Butterworth, a promising composer, was killed in World War I, leaving little of his music behind with the exception of settings of A. E. Housman’s poems from A Shropshire Lad and an orchestral idyll, The Banks of Green Willow. This newfound score is, according to the Bodleian, “believed to be the only surviving copy of this Butterworth composition.”

Discovered among a collection of uncatalogued music manuscripts (i.e., backlog) at the Bodleian’s Weston Library, the score is not in Butterworth’s hand, although some unknown copyist has written “Butterworth” on the manuscript in red pen. Librarians believe it likely that the manuscript was in the possession of Butterworth’s friend Sir Hugh Allen, a professor of music at Oxford whose collection of music and books was incorporated into the library upon his death in 1946.

In addition to the recording, a pop-up display of the manuscript is scheduled at the Weston Library from December 14-18.

Chris Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries, said: “With more than 12 million printed items, including more than half a million musical scores, the Bodleian Libraries’ collections are full of treasures but it’s not often we discover a gem like this. This rare musical score adds another work to Butterworth’s small but distinguished musical legacy and we are delighted to be putting in on display for all to see.”

“Make Way for Ducklings” Turns 75

02. Drawing for Make Way for Duckings (Look out! squawked Mrs. Mallard, all of a dither. You'll get run over!).jpg

Drawing for Make Way for Ducklings (“‘Look out!’ squawked Mrs. Mallard, all of a dither...”) by Robert McCloskey, 1941. Reproduced with permission from MFA Boston.                                                                                                                                                                                               

1941 proved to be a banner year for picture-book creators; Margret and H. A. Rey’s Curious George was published by Houghton Mifflin, and Viking Press presented Robert McCloskey’s second book, Make Way for Ducklings. Though neither the Reys nor McCloskey were natives of Massachusetts, both authors and their books are now forever bound with the Commonwealth. (Massachusetts designated Make Way for Ducklings its official children’s book in 2003. Michigan is the only other state to have such an honor.)

2016 marks 75 years that both books have delighted readers of all ages. Houghton Mifflin celebrated Curious George’s milestone birthday on September 17 with an event dedicated to discovery dubbed “Curiosity Day.” The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) is currently hosting an examination of McCloskey’s work in a retrospective entitled, appropriately, “Make Way for Ducklings: The Art of Robert McCloskey.”

Organized in cooperation with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, the show presents over 50 works on paper, mostly on loan from the May Massee Collection at Emporia State University in Kansas. (May Massee was a children’s book editor at Viking whose roster of award-winning authors and illustrators included Ludwig Bemelmans, Robert Lawson, Munro Leaf, and McCloskey, among many others.)


05. Drawing for Make Way for Ducklings.jpg

Drawing for Make Way for Ducklings. Reproduced with permission from the MFA, Boston.           

                                                                                                                                                                                                                             The show highlights preliminary drawings for Ducklings and final illustrations for McCloskey’s other books such as Lentil (1940) and Centerburg Tales (1951). (Wouldn’t the top sketch “Look Out” make a great illustrated envelope? Just a thought.) There’s also a set of miniature bronze models created for Nancy Schön’s now-iconic oversize sculptures of Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings that have welcomed adoring children in the Boston Public Garden since 1987. The exhibition also explores McCloskey’s artistic process and inspiration, and also explains why the book was printed in brown ink; though McCloskey had hoped to illustrate using watercolors, full-color printing was expensive in 1941, as America had just entered World War II. The book would have to be printed in monotone brown, so McCloskey drew the images backwards onto zinc lithographic plates, which saved money on printing by skipping offsetting altogether.

Duck prints lead showgoers throughout the exhibit, and there’s plenty of bench space and a selection of the two-time Caldecott Medal winner’s books available for quiet browsing.

Make Way for Ducklings: The Art of Robert McCloskey is on view at the MFA Boston now through June 18, 2017. Admission is free for children under 7, and free to all on Wednesdays after 4 p.m. (Museum entry is free for MFA members and $25 for non-members.) For more information visit

Photo of Abby.jpgOur Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Abby Schoolman, proprietor of Abby Schoolman Books in New York City:

How did you get started in rare books and the book arts?

I had the great luck to have grown up in a house full of readers with a very wide range of interests: art from ancient Egypt to Red Grooms, mystery novels, poetry, world religions, American history. Being surrounded by prints by 20th century artists such as Bernard Buffet and Marc Chagall, antique maps, and contemporary Inuit art didn’t hurt. My parents were always willing to take me and my sister to the library and to bookstores. I remember that when I was about 12 or 13, I told my sister I wanted to run a bookstore when I grew up, not that I knew what that entailed. Around the same time, I created a card catalog of my dad’s collection of golden age mysteries and spy novels which were double- and triple-shelved. We kept buying duplicates. In high school, like most people in the trade, I stumbled across 84, Charing Cross Road. But the real truth is that my interest in rare books and book arts was entirely accidental.

At my alma mater, Wellesley College, you have to declare your major at the end of your third term. For three terms I had reveled in a beautiful tossed salad of courses and still had no idea what I wanted to do. I decided to read the entire college course catalog and mark everything that sounded remotely interesting. Surely, I thought, I will find enough classes in a single department to fulfill the minimum requirement for a major. I didn’t. At the very end of the catalog there was a note about interdisciplinary majors and a list of those that were pre-approved by the faculty. Bingo! I had marked something like 16 classes that fell within Medieval/Renaissance Studies, a deliciously vague and inclusive course of study. I officially had a license to be an academic dilettante.

What I soon discovered was that the thread connecting my academic choices was an interest in the history of the book. I learned about everything from Books of Hours to the Kelmscott Press. Twice I tried, without success, to get a job in the college’s surprisingly comprehensive Special Collections Department, with holdings, just in printed books, ranging from a first edition of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili to contemporary artists’ books.

After college, I went to library school in Boston. I was trained as an archivist and rare book librarian. In early 2000, while working for a historical society in New York, I was recruited by Bauman Rare Books to work in its then brand new Madison Avenue gallery. I jumped at the chance. For over 14 years, I worked with five centuries of the most interesting and beautiful books in almost every field of human thought. It was heaven. The only type of book I rarely encountered was the type I work with now, but contemporary bookbinding interested me.

A few days before I started working for Bauman Rare Books, I stumbled across an exhibit of contemporary bindings of books on angling at the American Museum of Natural History. For the first time in my life, I bought an exhibition catalog. Little did I know that, many years later, buying books and catalogs of contemporary bookbinding exhibits from the mid-20th century to the present would become my obsession.

Around 2005, a concatenation of events caused me to become the manager of a massive contemporary bookbinding project. The seed that had been sown at the exhibit at AMNH blossomed. The bookbinder with whom I worked for over eight years was incredibly patient and generous in sharing many aspects of the world of bookbinding with me. I learned so much from him. As far as I know, he is still working on that never-ending project.

When did you open Abby Schoolman Books and what do you specialize in?

I opened Abby Schoolman Books in August 2014. I focus on unique contemporary art bookbindings and artist’s books of exceptional creativity and quality. I represent five incredibly talented artists exclusively. Whatever they make, in whatever format, I will sell. I also include in my inventory a number of specially selected books by other talented bookbinders and book artists. The bindings are always unique. The other books range from unique to limited edition fine press books.

Tell us about your role as a book artist representative. How does that work?

I love working directly with my artists: Malina Belcheva (US), Mark Cockram (UK), Timothy C. Ely (US), Christine Giard (France), and Sonya Sheats (US). Mostly, I stay out of their way. I want them to make whatever they want, in whatever format or medium they choose, regardless of what they have made or sold in the past. The freedom to choose, and the freedom from the constraints of set book competitions, juried exhibitions, and traditional expectations allows the artists breathing space. The result is better art.

My role as agent and bookseller for my five principal artists varies greatly based on individual needs or projects. Sometimes I am a sounding board for ideas, sometimes I am a student learning about structure or technique or obscure bookbinder lore, sometimes I gently give deadlines by providing a list of dates of upcoming book and art fairs. For some I write or edit documents. I also try to hustle on the behalf of those artists who wish to line up commissions, lectures, workshops, or other gigs. Often I listen to their ideas for bookselling: some of my artists have been in the book business for far longer than I, though from a different angle. Working a book fair with Christine Giard or Mark Cockram is an eye-opening experience for each of us. Most of all, what I do is try promote each artist and everything they do as loudly and comprehensively as possible, whether or not it relates directly to selling a book I have in stock.

What do you love about the book arts and the rare book trade?

I love working with living artists. It is a treat to watch their work come alive and to discuss books, art, and craftsmanship with them. The tradition of collegiality and the depth of knowledge in the rare book trade is incredible. Especially in contemporary book arts, the knowledge and experience of other dealers is a precious resource which most are happy to share. I was recently accepted as a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. It is a great honor to be a part of the best in the trade.

Describe a typical day for you:

I don’t really have a set schedule. I usually start around 7:30, in bed, with breakfast, news, and email. That portion of the day can last for hours. Of course, there are customer visits (by appointment) and shipping. My artists are in several time zones, so my work day has a way of breaking up into strange chunks according to their schedules. If I’m not working with a customer and one of them wants to talk, they get my full attention. I spend much of my time researching, writing, and wrangling the large numbers of images required to showcase each book.

Favorite rare book (or ephemera; or book art) that you’ve handled?

Timothy Ely’s unique manuscript and binding Bones of the Book: An Oblong Identity is a masterpiece. There is simply no other way to look at it. It’s physically huge (44.5cm x 30cm x 3.5cm), very personal and, even for Ely, incredibly complex in scope. It is special in many ways, not least because it took him 25 years to complete it. The title page says 1990 and it was exhibited then, I believe at Granary Books. He didn’t sell it. He put it away. Sometimes he showed it, but the truth is that it just didn’t feel finished to him. In 2015, he removed the original binding (now in the Ely archives), worked a bit more on the original pages, and rebound the book. It is now truly complete and it is spectacular.

Bones of the Book is the second in a three-book series that differs significantly from Ely’s other art. These books are both biographical and autobiographical. Each honors the important influence of family members in Ely’s life, and combines it with an aspect of bookbinding--the format Ely has chosen to house his artwork throughout his career. In each case, there is also a third narrative that plays a significant role in Ely’s identity as an individual and as an artist.

The series began with Binding the Book: The Flight Into Egypt in 1985. Egypt is about Ely’s grandfather, the journal he left behind about his mysterious trip to Egypt between the wars, bookbinding, and the geography of Egypt. For much more information about Binding the Book: The Flight Into Egypt, see The Flight into Egypt: Binding the Book (Chronicle Books, 1995). It’s out of print, but there are often copies available on Abebooks.

In Bones of the Book, the visual narrative combines Ely’s origins (Snohomish, WA, his parents, and their hardware store), and the close relationship between book structure and human anatomy. The third book has yet to be made. Ely plans for it to be about his Uncle Jack and his work as a combat photographer in the Pacific during WWII. In addition to the three-fold, co-mingled story line in Bones, as in all of Ely’s art, there are layers of references drawn from alchemy, mathematics, mythology, geography, and geology.

What do you personally collect?

Bookbinders. Also, books and exhibit catalogs of contemporary art bookbinding for my reference collection. Rob Fleck at Oak Knoll is my crack dealer and he knows it. In other words, I don’t collect. If I did, it would be what I sell.

What do you like to do outside of work?

There is an “outside of work?” Ok. I’ll admit that I like to knit, sleep, and hang out with my husband and our hilarious 12 year old daughter. When I have time, I try to keep my blog American Bound active. I also have an affection for police procedurals, both books and on television.

Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the book arts field:

The term “book art” encompasses an enormous amount of material produced these days. Even the definition of “book” is up for grabs. “Book arts” is a useful term, but lacks specificity. There is a very large, enthusiastic, international community of book makers of various sorts, from the kitchen table hobbyist to highly trained, ingenious artists. Many of those book makers are also collectors. I try not to be rigid about my definition of “book.” I am aware of my biases, but don’t mind being challenged. Still, I try to focus on my favorite things: art bookbinding and unique (or very limited edition) artist’s books. I want to see exceptional craftsmanship, creativity, and intelligence. I feel very good about the work of the very talented artists who use the book as their primary format for expression. Finding and showcasing a great binder or book artist is wonderful and, unlike the traditional art market, even their greatest works are affordable compared to a work by a contemporary painter of comparable stature. Book collectors know that and they know a good thing when they see it.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

I’m excited about exhibiting at the ABAA California Antiquarian Book Fair in Oakland, February 10 - 12.

Image courtesy Abby Schoolman.

Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Prinicipia for short) is a hallmark book in the history of science, “perhaps the greatest intellectual stride that it has ever been granted to any man to make,” according to Einstein. And as such it has long been one of those book collecting ‘high spots’ that can run to six and seven figures, depending upon condition, provenance, and, as in the case of the one headed for auction at Christie’s New York on December 14, the binding.

53379559_a copy.jpgThis first edition, printed in 1687, is bound in full gold-tooled red morocco (goatskin). The deluxe binding--of which only one other has been seen at auction in half a century, and that one was owned by King James II--was commissioned by the publisher/bookseller Samuel Smith as a presentation copy. It is unknown to whom he gave the volume, or where it traveled afterward, but the present owner has had it since it last appeared at auction in 1966, according to Francis Wahlgren at Christie’s.   

This Principia in its “fine London Restoration mosaic binding” is clearly reminiscent of the King James II copy referenced above, which sold for $2.5 million in 2013. The catalogue points out, however, that this one is from the “scarcer Continental issue” of the first edition.  

First editions of Principia periodically appear on the market. Christie’s sold one as recently as July, from the Giancarlo Beltrame library, for £266,500 ($353,912). But the one on offer later this month, estimated at $1-1.5 million, has everything going for it: it’s a fresh-to-market first edition of a scientific touchstone, in a glorious contemporary binding, and it has direct association with someone involved in its publication.

Image: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2016.

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Sir Edward Cazalet, the step-grandson of prolific British author P. G. Wodehouse, has loaned Wodehouse’s personal archive to the British Library. For the first time ever, the Wodehouse archive is now available for public viewing.

Cazalet actively collected the Wodehouse material ever since PGW died in 1975. The archive spans over a century of material, from 1900 until 2005, and includes manuscript drafts and notebooks related to Wodehouse’s fiction and nonfiction. Also included are material related to Wodehouse’s film writing and significant correspondence with family and friends, inclusive of Evelyn Waugh and Ira Gershwin.

“It is a privilege for the British Library to take on the P.G. Wodehouse Archive, which will be an extremely valuable resource for researchers and for everyone with an interest in twentieth century literature,” said Kathryn Johnson, Curator of Theatrical Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library.

Sir Edward Cazalet said of the loan, “I am so delighted that the British Library is to provide a home for my P.G. Wodehouse archive. Given that Wodehouse is now ranked as one of the leading, if not the leading, humourist authors of the 20th century writing in the English language, I believe that this broad-based collection will not only bring much pleasure and laughter to its readers but will also prove to be critical to any serious study of 20th century humour and literature.” 

(Image courtesy of the Wodehouse Trustees)

As literary artifacts go, this one evokes childlike delight: an ivory cup-and-ball toy that once belonged to Jane Austen is headed to auction at Sotheby’s London on December 13, where bids are expected in the £20,000-30,000 ($25,000-37,000) range.

Lot 123- Austen Cup and Ball.jpgThe game, also known as bilbocatch, was a popular pastime for the Austen family. As Jane herself wrote to her sister in October of 1808: “We do not want amusement: bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable; spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, with watching the flow and ebb of the river, and now and then a stroll out, keep us well employed...” At the time, Jane was using these amusements to redirect her grieving nephews George and Edward, who had just lost their mother.

Even in happier times, though, Jane’s gaming skills were commanding. Her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote in his Memoir of Jane Austen: “Jane Austen was successful in everything that she attempted with her fingers. None of us could throw spilikins in so perfect a circle, or take them off with so steady a hand. Her performances with cup and ball were marvellous. The one used at Chawton was an easy one, and she has been known to catch it on the point above an hundred times in succession, till her hand was weary.”

The cup-and-ball Austen-Leigh references above is the same now slated for auction, complete with minor chips and hairline cracks. It has “always remained in the family of Jane Austen,” according to Sotheby’s. On occasion, it has been exhibited at Chawton House.

512px-Jane_Austen_coloured_version.jpegAusten’s “things,” have garnered much interest in the past several years. Her turquoise and gold ring, for example, made headlines when American singer Kelly Clarkson purchased it at auction for $236,557 in 2012 but was then barred from exporting it to the U.S. The ring now belongs to Jane Austen’s House Museum. And in 2013, Paula Byrne published a biography based on Austen-related objects and artifacts.

Of related interest at the sale next week, Sotheby’s will also offer an Austen manuscript letter, written to her sister Cassandra in 1800 and covering details of Jane’s daily life (new furniture, weather, family news). It is estimated to realize £40,000-60,000 ($49,000-74,000).

Images: Top, Courtesy of Sotheby’s; Bottom, Courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Entrance to Emberley exhibition. Image reproduced with permission from Worcester Art Museum. 

A comprehensive exhibition for award-winning children’s picture book author and illustrator Ed Emberley opened November 16 at the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) in Massachusetts that examines Emberley’s enduring 60-year influence on budding artists and authors.

Over 100 artworks from Emberley’s own archive are on display--woodblocks, hand-drawn mock-ups, even a 90” by 30” print of Paul Bunyan--along with another 100 books written and illustrated by the prolific author. 

The career of the 85-year old Massachusetts native began in 1962 when The Wing on a Flea: A Book About Shapes made that year’s New York Times top-10 list of illustrated books. Since then, Emberley has create books stylistically diverse and endlessly creative, with some seeing greater commercial success than others, and many achieving beloved, almost cult-like following. For example, the 1975 out-of-print The Wizard of Op remains a coveted item by collectors, available online at a base price of $50 in acceptable condition. Prices rise to over $200 for copies in mint condition.

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Paul Bunyan’s Bunk House with plenty of space to cozy up and read. Reproduced with permission from Worcester Art Museum. 

Why host a retrospective now? Guest curator and fellow artist Caleb Neelon collaborated on a book about Emberley in 2014 with designer Todd Oldham (Ed Emberley/AMMO Books) and has been nursing the idea for a full-scale examination since then. “Putting together a show has been in the back of my mind since our book came out, and it turned out Adam Rozan [Director of Audience Engagement at WAM] and I were on the same page,” Neelon said.

“Emberley’s books stand the test of time in that they teach you something--whether you’re the kid or the grownup with the kid, you learn how to draw a simple lion or something else, and you feel good because you did it, and you can do it again, returning to that good feeling,” Neelon continued. “Ed’s whole goal is to get kids to look at something and say, ‘I can do that!’ When children turn seven or eight, some start to feel self-conscious about their drawing abilities and many stop drawing. These books take kids through that awkward stage and lets them have fun while they’re at it.”

“We hope our visitors will appreciate that Ed Emberley is an artist that must be seen and shown in art museums,” reiterated WAM’s Rozan. “His is the work that will be viewed in institutions now and in the future. Emberley’s work reminds us to innovate, dream, and wonder about the importance of the visual image and its relationship to the written word.”

WAM’s associate curator Katrina Stacy sees Emberley’s work as emblematic of a story with deep intergenerational Massachusetts roots, “and surprisingly, has never been the focus of a museum retrospective.” To ensure people of all ages can fully appreciate the breadth of the show, the curators included elements like easy-to-read labels and plenty of areas to rest, read, play, and of course, draw. WAM will be hosting regular drop-in workshops during the exhibition where visitors of all ages can try their hand at Emberley’s own artistic techniques. (See website for details on dates and times.)

“There are a lot of sad moods flying around our world right now,” concluded Neelon. “This is a good show to see if you are feeling low and need a lift.”

KAHBAHBLOOM: The Art and Storytelling of Ed Emberley runs through April 9, 2017 at the Worcester Art Museum 55 Sailsbury Street, Worcester, MA 01609


IMG_6990 (2).jpgOur Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Zoe Abrams (formerly Zoe Mindell) who has opened up her own rare book business after working for The Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Company.  We profiled Zoe back when she worked for PRBM. Today, we check in with her again to see how the new business is coming along:

Please introduce us to your new shop. What does Zoe Abrams Rare Books specialize in?

ZARB is a sole-proprietor shop based in Center City, Philadelphia, specializing in social history, especially as it relates to women. My inventory includes books and manuscripts from the 16th to 20th century concerning etiquette, education, domestic science, cookery, fashion, theater, and related subjects. Many of my books have contemporary annotations or hybrid qualities that distinguish them as unique objects.

 Remind us of your background in rare books:

I was introduced to the world of rare books through the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College. During and after college I did internships at a few lovely libraries and auction houses, including the Book Department at Christie’s London. After that I moved to Philadelphia to work for Bruce McKittrick and PRBM, then to NYC to work for Ursus Books. Last year my husband’s sabbatical sent us to Paris. It was the perfect opportunity, in one of the best book cities in the world, to launch my own business.

How has the transition been from employee to shop owner?

Very smooth! My work experience has helped immensely and I’m grateful to friends and former colleagues in the trade for their encouragement and readiness to advise. I took the CABS course last summer to boost my business savvy and highly recommend it to everyone. There are still a few things I’m learning: anyone have good tax advice?

Favorite book that’s crossed your door at Zoe Abrams Rare Books?

One that I love is also one of the oddest: the author’s copy of Napoleon et la Superstition (1946), so filled with clippings, photographs, and manuscript notes that it was expanded from one volume to two. The author, Georges Mauguin (1881-1961), was editor in chief of the Revue de l’Institut Napoléon. He spent about ten years compiling and arranging the documents, judging by their dates. The contents comprise personal matter, like the funeral announcement for his wife (juxtaposed with a facsimile letter from Napoleon to Josephine on the facing page), as well as emblematic ephemera like business cards for psychics. He was obsessed with Napoleon and occultism and finding a relationship there.

Describe a typical day for you:

Not too much has changed since I wrote about it on my blog last year. I still start my day with coffee from a French press, although my croissant is now a muffin. Then I get straight to cataloguing and photography to take advantage of morning light. Throughout the day I communicate with clients by email and phone and check dealer catalogues and auction listings as they arrive.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I’m alone most of the day so when I have free time I try to get outside and talk to people! I often go to flea markets, movies, chamber music concerts, and author talks. Recently I started scrapbooking to preserve the souvenirs from my travels.

Still actively collecting on a personal level?  What are your collecting interests these days?

I wouldn’t call it “active” collecting but I pick up things here and there, like vintage glassware and clothes. Book hunting is still one of my favorite activities.

Are you participating in any upcoming fairs?  Have any catalogues on the way?

I’ve done five lists so far, all posted on my website. Perhaps I’ll do a bigger catalogue someday, but right now I find the shorter format effective. No definitive plans yet for fairs, but I am considering a shadow show or two in the spring.

Image Courtesy of Zoe Abrams.

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